The Curse of Capistrano

by Johnston McCulley


Johnston McCulley circa late 30s
Johnston McCulley-Late 1930s

One would think that the creator of a legendary character would be assured of a kind of immortality. However, often the opposite proves true. Some characters have proved so popular that they have overshadowed their creators. Superman is a cultural icon, yet many would be hard pressed to name Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as his creators. Similarly, the Shadow, although brought to pulp "life" as a marketing tool, was fleshed out by Walter Gibson, under the house name of Maxwell Grant-but how many people have heard of either Gibson or Grant? James Bond is instantly recognizable, yet what facts do we know of the life of Ian Fleming? Whether by accident or design, the names of some creators, and the biographical details of their lives, have faded into the past, even while their creations live on. Such is the case with Johnston McCulley.

Arthur Johnston McCulley was born in Ottawa, Illinois on February 2, 1883. What little information exists on his life suggests that his parents were Andrew and Bella McCulley. His early years, number of siblings (if any) or his home environment are unknown and, except for a passing mention from McCulley himself that he developed an interest in history while in high school, his early life is a mystery. What is known is that McCulley began working as a newspaperman in the early 1900s and, by 1909, he began selling stories to the pulps, writing under his own name and several pseudonyms, including Raley Brien, George Drayne, Harrington Strong, Frederic Phelps, and Rowena Raley (Raley, incidentally, may have been his mother's maiden name).

There seems to be no comprehensive record of McCulley's output as a writer. He created a number of series characters: Thubway Tham (the lisping comic pickpocket), Black Star (a "gentleman criminal"), the Crimson Clown (who carried a gas gun), and these, along with others, were collected into book form due to their popularity. He also wrote for the movies (largely B-westerns) and produced numerous western and detective "one-shot" stories. Best estimates suggest that he wrote well over a thousand stories and short novels for the "quality" pulps, like All-Story, Argosy, and Blue Book. His best market by far was Detective Story Magazine, where he appeared in 320 issues between 1916 and 1925. McCulley was a popular and well established author, yet, like so many others, would most likely have been forgotten had he not created Zorro in 1919.

all-story-1919 (30K)
All-Story Weekly
August 9, 1919
From the collection of Ed Hulse.

Exactly how McCulley stumbled upon the Zorro idea is a bit of a mystery. The influences of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel are obvious in Don Diego Vega's use of a foppish pose to mask his secret identity as Zorro. One version of Zorro's "origins" says that McCulley, tired of formulaic pulp plots, decided to utilize his knowledge of history by creating a hero and placing him in a less-exploited area of the Old West-Spanish California. However, only part of this story can be true, since McCulley's first use of Spanish California as a setting appears in his 1915 novel Captain Fly-by-Night, which predates the first Zorro novel, The Curse of Capistrano, by 4 years. In addition, many of Fly-by-Night's locales, characters and sequences appear to have been re-worked and incorporated into The Curse of Capistrano. The exact series of events will probably never be known, but McCulley was obviously influenced by the past in the same way that Zorro would influence later characters from the Shadow to Superman.

The first part of The Curse of Capistrano was published in the August 9th issue of All-Story Weekly in 1919. Only the first part made the magazine's cover. The story's ending would indicate that no sequels were planned, and Zorro would probably have become just another of the prolific McCulley's one-shot heroes had not Douglas Fairbanks Sr. chosen to adapt Curse into a feature film, The Mark of Zorro, in 1920. The film was a tremendous hit that broke all box-office records in the 20s, and McCulley, whose contract with All-Story's publishers gave him half of any profits accruing from the sale of his books' film rights, soon found himself writing a follow-up, The Return of Zorro in 1922. Curse itself was reprinted as The Mark of Zorro in a hardback edition in 1923, McCulley came out with a third novel, Zorro Rides Again, in 1931, and followed up with several short stories until he retired the character in 1935.

markofzorro-cover-redux (29K)
The Mark of Zorro
Grossett & Dunlop 1923

The phenomenal success of the Fairbanks film, however, insured that Zorro would remain a presence in Hollywood for years: Republic Pictures turned out a Zorro feature film (The Bold Caballero) and two Zorro serials (Zorro Rides Again and Zorro's Fighting Legion) during the 1930s, and in 1941 Twentieth-Century Fox came out with The Mark of Zorro, a big-budget feature film starring Tyrone Power. By 1942, the Munsey Company folded and the rights to Zorro reverted back to McCulley. The success of the 1941 Mark of Zorro gained McCulley a contract with West magazine and, beginning in the July 1944 issue, he wrote a new Zorro story for nearly every issue until July 1951, when the magazine folded.

McCulley moved to Lake Arrowhead, California sometime in the late 1940s/early 1950s, where he lived with his daughter Maurine, a portrait painter. Assumedly, they were also joined by McCulley's wife, Louris, whom he married in 1925 (research indicates she may have been his second wife), but, as with many things in McCulley's life, this too remains a mystery. In the early-1950s, the film rights to Zorro were sold to Walt Disney, and McCulley possibly contributed some scripts to the first season of the Disney Zorro TV series.

Johnston McCulley passed away in 1958, and his final Zorro story, which had been engendered by the success of the TV series, was published posthumously in Short Stories Magazine in 1959.

Note: The authors would like to thank author and editor Ed Hulse for his invaluable input in assembling this introduction. More of Ed's work can be found in his magazine, Blood 'n' Thunder.

Dan Neyer & Bob Gay
June, 2007
Introduction © 2007 by Dan Neyer and Bob Gay

A collection of facts and speculations about Johnston McCulley can be found in the article Johnston McCulley: Man of Mystery.

A selection of Johnston McCulley book and magazine covers can be found in the gallery Featuring Johnston McCulley.

An example of another McCulley character, Thubway Tham, is available in the story, Thubway Tham Tunes In.

Editor's Note:

In editing the text for Curse of Capistrano, we have attempted to retain all of McCulley's sentence structure and spellings and have only corrected those words that appear to be errors in the scanning or just blatantly wrong. We have also divided the novel into five parts, which may, or may not, reflect the original divisons of the novel when it was serialized in 1919 (when in doubt, we tried to end each section with a cliff-hanger): a new section will be released each week throughout June of 2007.

Many Spanish words appear in the text and, although it is common editorial practice to italicize foreign words, there are so many throughout the novel that it soon became evident that they became a visual distraction, rather than a help, to the reader. Therefore, we have simply chosen to add a tilde to señor, señorita and señora, as a recognization of their foreign origin and pronunciation, and have added a short dictionary that defines the more common terms found in the novel.

Table of Contents

Part 2 - June 8, 2007
Chapter 9: The Clash Of Blades
Chapter 10: A Hint At Jealousy
Chapter 11: Three Suitors
Chapter 12: A Visit
Chapter 13: Love Comes Swiftly
Chapter 14: Captain Ramon Writes A Letter
Chapter 15: At The Presidio
Chapter 16: The Chase That Failed
Part 3 - June 15, 2007
Chapter 17: Sergeant Gonzales Meets A Friend
Chapter 18: Don Diego Returns
Chapter 19: Captain Ramon Apologizes
Chapter 20: Don Diego Shows Interest
Chapter 21: The Whipping
Chapter 22: Swift Punishment
Chapter 23: More Punishment
Chapter 24: At The Hacienda Of Don Alejandro
Part 4 - June 22, 2007
Chapter 25: A League Is Formed
Chapter 26: An Understanding
Chapter 27: Orders For Arrest
Chapter 28: The Outrage
Chapter 29: Don Diego Feels Ill
Chapter 30: The Sign Of The Fox
Chapter 31: The Rescue
Chapter 32: Close Quarters
Part 5 - June 29, 2007
Chapter 33: Flight And Pursuit
Chapter 34: The Blood Of The Pulidos
Chapter 35: The Clash Of Blades Again
Chapter 36: All Against Them
Chapter 37: The Fox At Bay
Chapter 38: The Man Unmasked
Chapter 39: "Meal Mush And Goat's Milk!"